I write this month’s column while I sit beside a beautiful wildflowered ravine in one of Kentucky’s amazing state parks. Watching hikers circle the artistic sculptures on one side of the field and soccer nets on the other, I can’t help but rejoice that I’m immersed in something spectacular – cultural tourism in Kentucky.
I have lived cultural tourism my entire life. It started in my family five generations ago down South. My great-grandparents were hoteliers throughout Georgia. They ran inns, restaurants and gardens, inviting tourists to visit the region, including the design-driven town of Madison, a rare untouched Victorian town on Atlanta’s outskirts. Madison was saved by troops on both sides in the Civil War because of its cultural and artistic relics and beautiful architecture, art collections, academic history, culinary crafts and artistic gardens throughout the town. As a teenager, my mother helped her parents manage the beautiful, sun-soaked Jekyll Island off Georgia’s coast. The island, a former millionaires’ playground, had been abandoned and was run-down. In the early 1950s my grandfather, Barney Whitaker Sr., had a stroke of genius and rented the island from the state, and his family of five restored the artistic properties and amenities. They knew that people from all walks of life love culture, appreciate art and architecture, good music, excellent food and hospitality… and grandfather suspected that people might travel to soak it in.
My relatives recognized that the combination of hospitality, adventure, arts and history make for a fantastic experience. Today, the intentional design of such an impacting location is a field called creative placemaking, which, according to the National Consortium for Creative Placemaking, is a new way of making communities more livable and prosperous through the arts, and making them better places for the arts. Creative placemaking is about more than public art or performing arts centers. It is about making places better for everyone.
There are regional, national, even international conferences on creative placemaking for community planners, municipal leaders and arts and history buffs to study the science, economic development and politics of these community projects. That’s because a large number of wise business and community leaders in arts and tourism started recognizing trends – those same trends my family noticed generations ago – that people come to these places in droves. People love to vacation in creative and culturally meaningful places. They invest their time and spend their money, but with great excitement to those attempting to sustain these communities, these visitors make memories at these places. Creative placemaking sustains communities.
The Kentucky Arts Council recognizes communities that are making an effort to maintain the cultural and artistic life of these special places in Kentucky over time. There are dozens of thriving communities that draw in visitors for cultural tourism around the commonwealth, and there are more springing up. As of spring 2017, Kentucky has been able to recognize seven special communities that have gone and continue to go the extra mile to provide, maintain and market their unique and strong cultural value and hospitality.
If you have not recently visited one of Kentucky’s Official Creative Districts, spend some time enjoying one of these amazing communities: Bardstown;, Berea;, Covington;, Danville; Maysville;, Paducah; and our most recently added district, Owensboro. You won’t be disappointed.
To become a Kentucky Creative District, each of these communities proved they are places where the arts are integral to building community, engaging residents, encouraging entrepreneurship and attracting visitors.
Maybe your family has been part of this cultural tourism trend – and maybe you are the key to your community’s cultural future! According to a 2013 report by Mandala Research, a cultural tourist in the United States spends 60 percent more, approximately $1,319 per trip, compared with $820 for U.S. leisure tourists.
To me, it is a natural thing to do – to want heritage, history and beauty to continue. I guess it just runs in my family. I’m betting it might in yours, too!
To learn more about Kentucky Arts Council’s Creative Districts go to artscouncil.ky.gov or call Mark Brown at (502) 892-3115.
Lydia Bailey Brown is executive director of the Kentucky Arts Council.